Print: December 19, 2017
eBook: January 1, 2018

His Merciless Marriage Bargain

The Mediterranean Marriages Series

read an excerpt →

The Italian’s shock heir… 

Raising her sister’s child has left Rachel Bern penniless and desperate. Since her orphaned nephew’s family has ignored her attempts at contact, she has no choice but to bring him to the Marcellos’ Venetian door.

Losing his brother devastated Giovanni Marcello. Rachel’s news is another bombshell, and he can’t believe that she doesn’t have an ulterior motive. One kiss should unravel her deception, until their smoldering chemistry has Gio reconsidering…

Gio exacts a high price for acknowledging his heir, but Rachel cannot help but succumb to his outrageous demands. Even if it means walking down the aisle!

Classic Romance

Print: December 19, 2017
eBook: January 1, 2018

His Merciless Marriage Bargain

read an excerpt →

The Italian’s shock heir… 

Raising her sister’s child has left Rachel Bern penniless and desperate. Since her orphaned nephew’s family has ignored her attempts at contact, she has no choice but to bring him to the Marcellos’ Venetian door.

Losing his brother devastated Giovanni Marcello. Rachel’s news is another bombshell, and he can’t believe that she doesn’t have an ulterior motive. One kiss should unravel her deception, until their smoldering chemistry has Gio reconsidering…

Gio exacts a high price for acknowledging his heir, but Rachel cannot help but succumb to his outrageous demands. Even if it means walking down the aisle!

His Merciless Marriage Bargain

The Mediterranean Marriages Series

Themes & Archetypes

Italians

Harlequin Presents

Start Reading

His Merciless Marriage Bargain

His Merciless Marriage Bargain

Jump to Ordering Options →

 CHAPTER ONE

Rachel Bern stood outside the imposing doors of the Palazzo Marcello shivering, the wind grabbing at her black coat and ponytail, sending both flying.

Overhead, thick gray clouds blanketed the sky and the rising tides sent water surging over the banks of the lagoon, wetting the streets of Venice, but the stormy weather wasn’t so different from her weather in Seattle. She’d grown up with rain and damp. This morning she wasn’t shivering from cold, but nerves.

This could go so very wrong. It could blow up in her face, leaving her and Michael in an even worse situation, but she was at her wit’s end. If this didn’t get Giovanni Marcello’s attention, nothing would. She’d tried everything else, tried every other form of communication, but every attempt resulted in silence and the silence was destructive. Crushing. She was taking a huge risk, but what else could she do?

Giovanni Marcello, an Italian billionaire, was also one of the most reclusive businessmen in Italy. He rarely socialized. He had no direct email or phone, and when Rachel finally reached Signor Marcello’s front office management, they were noncommittal about relaying messages to the CEO of the holding company, Marcello SpA. And so she was here, at the Palazzo Marcello in Venice, the family’s home for the past two hundred years. Until the turn of the twentieth century, the Marcellos had been a shrewd, successful manufacturing family that had earned its place in society through hard work and wealth, but in the past forty years, the family had expanded from manufacturing and construction into real estate and, under the helm of Giovanni Marcello, investing in world markets. The Marcello fortune had quadrupled through Giovanni’s management, and they had become one of the most powerful and influential families in Italy.

Thirty-eight-year-old Giovanni continued to head up the holding company based in Rome, but she’d just discovered through her hired investigator that he rarely put in an appearance at the office, choosing instead to work from Venice. Which was why she was now here on his doorstep, exhausted and jet-lagged from traveling with a six-month-old baby, but determined. He couldn’t ignore her any longer. There would be no more shutting her out, or more importantly, Michael.

Heart aching, eyes stinging, she glanced down at the bundle in her arms, the baby thankfully finally sleeping, and silently apologized for what she was about to do. “It’s for your sake,” she whispered, bringing him close to her chest and giving a light squeeze. “And I’m not going far, I promise.”

Even in his sleep, the baby wriggled in protest. She smiled ruefully, easing her hold, but she couldn’t ease the guilt. She hadn’t slept since they left Seattle, but then, she hadn’t slept in months, not since she’d become his full-time caregiver. At six months he should be ready to sleep through the night, but maybe he felt how unsettled she was, or maybe he was missing his mother…

Rachel’s eyes stung and her heart smarted. If only she’d done more for Juliet after Michael’s birth, if only she’d understood how distraught she had been…

But Rachel couldn’t turn back time, and so she was here, about to hand him over to his father’s family. Not forever, of course, just for a few minutes, but to make a point. They needed help. She was broke and about to lose her job, and it wasn’t right, not when his father’s family could, and should, help.

Swallowing, she raised her hand and knocked firmly on the door, and then, in case the knock couldn’t be heard inside, she pressed the button for the doorbell mounted on the wall. Did the bell even work, she wondered? Had anyone heard her?

Between the wind and the lapping of water and the voices of tourists and travelers on the lagoon, she wasn’t sure if anyone was stirring within the palazzo. She knew she was being watched, though, and not from within the building, but from the photographers stationed outside. There was one across the lagoon and another on a balcony of an adjacent building, as well as another parked in a tethered gondola. She’d seen the cameras as she stepped off the water taxi and was glad to see them as she’d been the one to tip them off, teasing the various media outlets that something significant was happening today, something to do with a Marcello baby.

It was easy enough to accomplish when one’s job hinged on publicity, marketing and customer relations for AeroDynamics, one of the largest airline manufacturers in the world. Normally her PR efforts were to attract new, affluent customers—sheikhs, tycoons, sports figures, celebrities—by showcasing AeroDynamics sleek jet designs and luxurious interiors, but today she needed the media because they could apply pressure for her. Their photos would draw attention, and subsequent public scrutiny, and Giovanni Marcello would not like it. He valued his privacy and would take immediate steps to curtail the attention. But before he did that, she needed to make sure that she got the right action and the proper results. She didn’t want to shame the Marcellos, or alienate them. She needed them on her side—correction, on Michael’s side—but her actions now might do the opposite and push them further away—

No, she couldn’t go there. She wouldn’t think that way. Giovanni Marcello had to accept Michael, and he would, once he saw how much his nephew looked like his brother.

Rachel lifted her hand to knock again, but the door swung open before she could rap a second time. A tall thin elderly man stood in the doorway. Shadows stretched behind him. From the doorstep, the space appeared cavernous, with a glinting of an ornate chandelier high overhead.

She looked from the grand light fixture to the elderly man. He wore a plain dark suit, a very simple suit, and she suspected he wasn’t family, but someone who worked for the Marcellos. “Signor Marcello, per favore,” she said calmly, crisply, praying her Italian would be understood. She’d practiced the phrase on the flight, repeating the simple request over and over to ensure she could deliver the words with the right note of authority.

“Signor Marcello non è disponibile,” he answered flatly.

Her brows furrowed as she tried to decipher what he’d said. Non was not. Disponibile could mean just about anything but she sensed it was a negative, either way.

“È lui non a casa?” she stumbled, struggling to remember the words, not at all sure she was getting the tense right, or the correct words, never mind the words in the proper order. Her little phrase book only gave her so many options.

“No. Addio.”

She understood those words. No, and goodbye.

She moved forward swiftly before he could close the door on her, using her low-heeled boot to keep the door ajar.

“Il bambino Michael Marcello,” she said in Italian, before switching to English as she thrust the infant into the old man’s arms. “Please tell Signor Marcello that Michael will need a bottle when he wakes.”

She drew the diaper bag strap from her shoulder and set the bulging bag down on the doorstep at the man’s feet. “He will also need a diaper change, probably before the bottle,” she added, fighting to keep her voice even, almost impossible when her heart raced and she already itched to reach out and wrench the baby back. “Everything he needs is in the bag, including his schedule to help him adjust. If there are questions, my hotel information is in the bag, along with my cell number.”

And then her voice did break and her throat sealed closed and she turned away, walking quickly before the tears could fall.

It’s for Michael, she told herself, swiping tears as she hurried toward the canal. Be brave. Be strong. You’re doing this for him.

The baby wouldn’t be away from her for more than a few minutes because she fully expected Giovanni Marcello to come after her. If not now, then surely at her hotel, which was less than five minutes away by water taxi, as she’d left all her contact details in the diaper bag.

And yet, every step she took carried her farther from the palazzo and closer to the water taxi waiting for her, and now with Michael out of her arms, she felt hollow and empty, every instinct in her screaming for her to turn around and go back and have this out with Giovanni, face-to-face.

But what if Giovanni refused to come to the door? How was she to force Giovanni out for the necessary conversation?

The old man shouted something, his voice thin and sharp. She didn’t understand, but one word did stand out. Polizia. Was he threatening to call the police? She wasn’t surprised if he was. It’s what she’d do if someone just abandoned a six-month-old infant to her care. Numb and heartsick, she kept her focus on the water taxi tethered in the canal. The driver was watching her and she waved, signaling that she was ready to go.

Seconds later, a hand seized her upper arm. The fingers gripped her tightly, the hold painful. “Ouch!” Rachel winced at the painful hold. “Let go.”

“Stop running,” the deep male voice ground out, the voice as hard as the punishing grip, his English perfect with just the slightest accent.

She turned around, the persistent wind having loosened dark strands from her ponytail, making it hard to see him through the tangle of hair. “I’m not running,” she said fiercely, trying to free herself, but he stood close, his grip unrelenting. “Can you give me some space, please?”

“Not a chance, Miss Bern.”

She knew then who this tall man was, and a shiver raced through her as she pushed long strands of hair behind her ears. Giovanni Marcello wasn’t just tall, he was impressively broad through the shoulders, with thick black hair, light eyes and high cheekbones above a firm, unsmiling mouth. She’d seen pictures of him on the internet. There weren’t many, as he didn’t attend a lot of social events like his brother Antonio had, but in every photo he was elegantly dressed, impeccably groomed. Polished. Gleaming. Hard.

He looked even harder in person. His light eyes—an icy blue—glittered down at her and his strong, chiseled features were set. Grim.

She felt a flutter of fear. It crossed her mind that beneath the groomed exterior was something dark and brooding, something that struck her as not entirely civilized.

Rachel took a step back, needing her distance even more now.

“You said you weren’t running,” he growled.

“I’m not going anywhere, and there’s no need for you to be on top of me.”

“Are you unwell, Miss Bern? Are you having a breakdown?”

“Why would you ask that?”

“Because you’ve just abandoned a child on my doorstep.”

“He’s not being abandoned. You’re his uncle.”

“I strongly suggest you retrieve the child before the police arrive.”

“Let the police come. At least then the world will know the truth.”

He arched a black brow. “So you are unwell.”

“I’m perfectly well. In fact, I couldn’t be better. You have no idea how difficult it has been to locate you. Months of investigation, not to mention money I couldn’t afford to spend on a private investigator, but at least we are here now, face-to-face, ready to discuss new responsibilities.”

“The only thing I have to say to you is collect the child—”

“Your nephew.”

“And return home before this becomes unpleasant for everybody.”

“It’s already unpleasant for me. Your help is desperately needed.”

“You, and he, are not my problem.”

“Michael is a Marcello. He’s your late brother’s only child, and he should be protected and provided for by his family.”

“That is not going to happen.”

“I think it will.”

His eyes narrowed, the icy blue irises partially hidden by dense black lashes. “You are deliberately trying to provoke me.”

“And why not? You’ve done nothing but irritate and provoke me for the past few months. You had many opportunities to reply to my emails and phone calls, but you couldn’t be bothered to reach out, so now I’m returning to you what is yours.” Which wasn’t actually true—she wasn’t leaving Michael here, but she didn’t have to let him know that.

“You’re definitely not sound if you’re abandoning your sister’s son—”

“And Antonio’s,” she interrupted tautly. “If you recall your lessons in biology, conception requires a sperm and an egg, and in this instance its Juliet’s and Antonio’s—” She paused, grinding down to hold back the rest of the hot painful words, words that ached and kept her from sleeping and eating. Juliet had always been foolish and impractical, her dreams littered with hearts, flowers, expensive sports cars and wealthy boyfriends. “The DNA paperwork is inside his diaper bag,” she continued. “You’ll find his medical records and everything you need to know about his routine in there, too. I’ve done my part. Now it’s your turn.” She gave him a brittle nod and turned away, grateful for the water taxi that still waited for her.

He caught her once more, this time by the nape, warm fingers sliding beneath her ponytail to wrap around her neck. “You’re going nowhere, Miss Bern, at least not without that child.” His voice had dropped, deepening, and she shuddered at the sensation burning through her.

His grip was in no way painful but her skin tingled from head to toe. It was almost as if he’d plugged her into an electric socket. As he turned her to face him, goose bumps covered her arms, and every part of her felt unbearably sensitive.

She looked up into his cool blue eyes and went hot, then cold, feeling a frisson of awareness streak through her. She wasn’t afraid, but the sensation was too sharp, too intense to be pleasurable. “And you really must stop manhandling me, Signor Marcello,” she answered faintly, her heart thudding violently.

“Why is that, Miss Bern?”

She stared up into his face, her gaze locking with his. There was nothing icy about his eyes now. No, they glowed with intelligence and heat and power. There was a physicality about him that stole her breath, knocking her off balance. She tried to gather her thoughts but his energy was so strong she felt it hum through her, lighting her up, making her feel as if he’d somehow stripped her bare.

Gulping for air, she looked down at his strong straight nose and the brackets on either side of his mouth. His face was not a boy’s but a man’s, with creases and lines, and if she didn’t dislike him so much, she would have found the creases beautiful. “You are giving the paparazzi quite a show, you know,” she whispered.

His strong black brows pulled.

“All the manhandling won’t look well in tomorrow’s papers. I’m afraid there are too many incriminating photos.”

“Incriminating photos—” He broke off abruptly, understanding dawning.

His hand dropped even as his gaze scanned the wide canal and the narrow pavement fronting the water and old buildings. She saw the moment he spotted the first of the cameras, and then others. His dark head turned, his gaze raking her, the blue fire blistering her. “What have you done?”

His voice was deep and rough, his accent more pronounced. Her pulse drummed and her insides churned. She’d scored her first hit, and it scared her. She wasn’t accustomed to battling anyone, much less a powerful man. In her work, she assisted, providing support and information. She didn’t challenge or contradict.

“I did what needed to be done,” she said hoarsely. “You refused to acknowledge your nephew. Your family falls in step with whatever you say, and so I’ve pressed the issue. Now the whole world knows that your brother’s son has been returned to your family.”

Giovanni Marcello drew a slow deep breath and then another. He was shocked as well as livid. He’d been played. Played. By a manipulative, money-hungry American no less. He despised gold diggers. Greedy, selfish, soulless. “You contacted the media, inviting them here today?”

“I did.”

Rachel was no different from her sister. His fingers curled a little, the only sign that he was seething inwardly. “You’re pleased with yourself.”

“I’m pleased that you’ve been forced out of hiding—”

“I was never hiding. Everyone knows this is my home. It’s common knowledge that I work here, as well.”

“Then why is this the first time I’ve had a conversation with you? I’ve reached out to your company staff again and again, and you’ve never bothered to respond to anything!”

Who was she to demand anything from him? From the start her family had only wanted one thing: to milk the Marcellos. Her sister, Juliet Bern, wasn’t in love with his brother, rather she wanted Antonio’s money. And once she could no longer blackmail Antonio, Juliet turned on his family, and then once Juliet was gone, it was Rachel’s turn. Disgusting. “I owe you nothing, and my family owes you nothing. Your sister is gone. Well, my brother is gone, too. Such is life—”

“Juliet said you had a heart of ice.”

“Do you really think you’re the first woman to try to entrap Antonio?” Or me? Gio silently added, as he’d been played for a fool once, but he’d learned. He knew better than to trust a pretty face.

“I didn’t entrap anyone. I didn’t sleep with anyone. I find no pleasure in this, Signor Marcello. If anything, I’m horrified. I am not reckless. I do not fall in love with strangers, or make love to handsome wealthy Italian men. I have scruples and morals, and you are not someone I admire, and your wealth doesn’t make you appealing. Your wealth, though, can help a little boy who needs support.”

“So I’m to applaud you?”

“No. Just have a conscience, please.”

From the corner of his eye, Giovanni saw a photographer move, crouching as he crept forward, snapping away. His gut tightened, his chest hot with barely leashed anger.

He couldn’t believe she’d managed to draw him out of the palazzo and into this scene, a very public scene with witnesses everywhere.

With his position at the helm of the family business, he’d worked hard to keep personal affairs out of the news. It’d taken nearly a decade to restore his family’s fortune and his family’s reputation, but finally the Marcellos were a name to be proud of and a brand that garnered respect. It hadn’t been easy to redeem their name, but he’d managed it through consistent, focused effort. Now, in one reckless moment, this American was about to turn the Marcellos into tabloid fodder once more.

He wasn’t ready. He was still struggling to come to terms with his brother’s death and refused to have Antonio’s memory darkened, his name besmirched, by those consumed with greed. “This isn’t a conversation I intend to continue on the streets of Venice,” he ground out. He was usually so good at avoiding confrontations. He knew how to manage conflict. And yet here they were, staging an epic soap opera, just a block off the Grand Canal. It couldn’t be more public. “Nor am I about to let you abuse my family. If there is to be a story, I shall provide the story, not you.”

“It’s a little late for that, Signor Marcello. The story has been captured on a half-dozen different cameras. I guarantee within the hour you’ll find those images online. Tabloids pay—”

“I’m fully aware of how the paparazzi works.”

“Then you’re also aware of what they have to work with—me handing the baby to your employee, you chasing after me and now us arguing in front of my water taxi.” She paused. “Wouldn’t it have been so much easier to have just taken my phone call?”

His gaze swept her face. He felt an uneasy memory of another woman who looked very much like this American Rachel Bern…

Another beautiful brunette who had been exquisitely confident…

He pushed the memory of his fiancée, Adelisa, from mind, but her memory served a purpose. It reminded him of his vow that he’d never let a woman have the upper hand again. Fortunately, he knew that stories could be massaged, and facts weren’t always objective. Rachel had come to give the photographers a fantastic shot, something they could take to every newspaper and magazine, and Gio could help her with that. He could ensure the paparazzi photographers with their telephoto lenses had something significant to capture, something that would derail her strategy.

Giovanni pulled her to him, one arm locking around her waist, the other hand free to lift her face. Holding her captive, he cupped her chin and jaw, angling her face up to his. He saw a flare of panic in her eyes, the brown irises shot with flecks of green and gold, before he dropped his head, capturing her mouth with his.

She stiffened, her lips still, her breath bottling. He could feel her fear and tension and he instantly gentled the kiss. Although he’d reached for her in anger, he wasn’t in the habit of kissing a woman in anger.

Her mouth was soft and warm. Despite her tension, she was soft and warm and he pulled her closer, tipping her head farther back to tease her lips. He stroked the seam with the tip of his tongue, her mouth generous and pliant. A quiver raced through her, her body shuddering against him and he stroked the seam again, playing with the full upper lip, catching the bow gently in his teeth.

She made a hoarse sound, not in pain, but pleasure, and a lance of hot desire streaked through him, making him hard all over.

He deepened the kiss, her lips parting for him, giving him access to the sweet heat of her mouth. It had been months since he’d enjoyed a kiss half so much, and he took his time, the kiss an exploration of taste and texture and response. His tongue traced the edge of her upper lip and he felt her shudder, her mouth opening wider.

She tasted sweet and hot, but also surprisingly innocent, and his body throbbed, blood drumming in his veins. With his arm in the small of her back, he pulled her even closer, stroking her mouth, over her lower lip, and then finding her tongue, making her shiver again.

Her breathless sighs and little shivers whetted his appetite. It’d been a long time since he felt hunger like this. It had been a year and a half since he’d broken things off with his last mistress, and he’d spent evenings with different women since, but he hadn’t slept with any of them. How could he when there was no desire? Antonio’s death had numbed him to everything, until now.

Abruptly Gio released Rachel and took a step back, his pulse thudding hard and heavy, echoing the hot ache in his groin. She stood dazed and motionless, her brown eyes cloudy and bemused.

“That should give your photographer friends something intriguing to sell.” His voice sounded harsh even to his own ears. “It will be interesting to see what story the papers run with the addition of these news shots. Is it really about the baby? Or is this more? A lover’s quarrel, their passionate encounter, an emotional goodbye?”

She exhaled, her cheeks flushed with color, her eyes overly bright. “Why?” she choked.

“Because this is my city and my home, and you are the outsider here. If there is to be a story, it’s going to be my story, not yours.”

“And what is that story, Signor Marcello?”

“Let’s make this easier. It’s always best to keep the story simple. I am Giovanni—close friends and family call me Gio, and you may call me Gio—and I shall call you Rachel.”

“I prefer the formal.”

“But it rings false,” he answered, reaching out to lift a dark glossy tendril of hair from her cheek and carefully smooth it back from her face. Her skin was soft and so very warm and he was reminded of the kiss, and the heat and the sweetness of her mouth. Such a mouth. The things he could do to her mouth. He still felt carnal and hungry. Desire still ran hot in his veins. It was a novelty after so many months of grief and emptiness. “We are no longer strangers. We have a history. A story. And the media, I think, will be enamored with our story.”

“The only story is the truth. You have a nephew you refuse to acknowledge, never mind support.”

“But is he my nephew?”

“Yes, you know he is. I’ve sent you the birth certificate and we can do a DNA test while I’m here—”

“Proving what?” he retorted. Before she could answer, he reached for her again, his hand coiling in her long dark hair, tilting her head back to take her mouth in a long, searing kiss.

She didn’t stiffen or resist. If anything, she leaned into him and he wrapped an arm around her slender frame holding her against him as he deepened the kiss, his tongue sweeping her mouth, tasting her, weakening her defenses. By the time he lifted his head, she was silent, no fight left in her. Her wide brown eyes looked up into his.

“You should never underestimate your opponent, Rachel,” he said quietly, running his thumb lightly across her soft flushed cheek. “And you most definitely shouldn’t have underestimated me.”

 

end of excerpt

His Merciless Marriage Bargain is available for pre-order in the following formats:

His Merciless Marriage Bargain

Harlequin Presents

ISBN: 9781488083044

Print: December 19, 2017
Digital: January 1, 2018